It must be my week for thinking about small states in personal terms. I only took an interest in the specific dynamics of small states when I moved to NZ, having previously written mostly about larger states (although I did write a bit on Cuba and Uruguay before moving to NZ). Living in NZ exposed me not only to the political dynamics of a small democracy, but the social dynamics as well. Things like the 2 degrees of separation that make putting distance on ex-partners very difficult. Things like the rapidity with which one’s personal life becomes the object of professional speculation, and how quickly rumors in one dimension transfer to the other. Things like blacklisting, sinecures and shoulder-tapping.
I write this more as an open question to readers. My question rests against the backdrop of NZ being proclaimed as the least corrupt country on earth by one polling outfit, and the general consensus that it is one of the more successful liberal democracies in existence. But if liberal democratic success is defined as the absence of corruption in and ascriptive rationales for social advancement, plus the universal presence of merit, equality and transparency in public and private upward mobility, can we really claim that NZ is a “success” on those terms?
I may stand corrected on this, but it strikes me that for a democracy NZ has an unusually high incidence of shoulder-tapping and sinecure-mongering. Shoulder-tapping is the practice of rigging a competition by pre-selecting the favorite candidate or outcome, then going through the motions of a transparent and equitable process so as to disguise the pre-determined choice. As an example, consider this from NZ academia. A well-known academic with international credentials is encouraged by the Director of a university research centre to apply for a newly opened position. The invitation is accepted, letters, resume and referee names forwarded, only to have the application rejected within weeks. When asked for the reasons why the application was rejected after the applicant was encouraged to apply, the Director stated that internal competition for the position was fierce and better candidates emerged. Months later it is revealed that weeks before the “search” began for a candidate, an academic at another NZ institution with ties to the Director was approached for the job and eventually awarded it. The international candidate “search” in other words, was a cover for the selection of the shoulder-tapped individual.
In another instance drawn from academia, a search committee was formed to find suitable candidates for a specific disciplinary sub-field. Unbeknown to two of the committee members, the other three members, including the Chair, as well as the external faculty representative, were all co-authors of Â a husband-and-wife candidate duo vying to be short-listed. Not surprisingly the duo were listed as the best candidates out of ten finalists by their four co-authors. No conflict of interest is declared. When one of the other committee members discovers the connection and complains to the Faculty Dean about the clear conflict of interest involved in the search process he is given a warning not to disparage the professional integrity of his colleagues. But his protestations continue. The search ends with a compromise candidate being selected, but in the next year the Chair resigns and joins the husband and wife team at a foreign university while the whistleblower winds up being (as it turns out unjustifiably) dismissed on another matter in which one of the committee members with a conflict of interest played a decisive role . The Lesson? Interfere with a shoulder-tapping exercise at your peril.
This are just two illustrations from one profession. I have been told of or have seen myself dozens of other cases–including in such places as my old surf lifesaving club–where the shoulder-tap, with or without a wink and a nod, is used as a means for advancement under the cover of ostensibly “fair” elections, tenders and searches. Sports associations, voluntary organisations, service societies, public bureaucracy, the education system, unions, the media, local councils, the legal profession, political parties, a wide swathe of private businesses and business interest aggregators, perhaps even the Police and Fire Services, hopefully not the military–is there any part of NZ society in which this is not part of the unwritten norms governing career and personal advancement? My question then is: am I wrong in seeing something amiss here? Am I exaggerating the extent to which this occurs?
Likewise goes for the issue of sinecures. A sinecure is a position offered to someone that entails little actual responsibility and is awarded not on merit but as a form of patronage or reward for services rendered. In NZ there appears, again to my uninformed mind, to be a lot of sinecurism in virtually every walk of life. Ex-politicians, ex-bureaucrats and ex-ministers get comfy senior positions in state entities and private boards regardless of their backgrounds or records in a given field. Individuals with much private wealth but little other distinction serve on boards, committees and trusts. There is an affirmative action sub-type in which persons from ethnic minorities are awarded well-paid “honorary” positions or those mentioned previously regardless of their qualifications. From local councils to national-level politics and enterprise, sinecurism seems to be endemic.
NZ is not alone when it comes to such practices, so my question is whether these are just more obvious in a small (democratic) state when compared to a Â larger one, or is the practice itself more frequent in small democracies, NZ in particular?Â
It needs to be noted that these practices are not equivalent to clientalism. Although shoulder-tapping and sinecurism are seemingly endemic in NZ and can be considered to be institutionalised, they are not recognised as such and in fact occur beneath the mantle of egalitarianism, transparency and merit. They are therefore informal, nepotistic institutional practices that operate under the cover of a rationalist meritocratic Weberian ideal. Clientalism, on the other hand, is a formal institutionalised practice whereby political or personal networking lines combine with merit-based criteria into channels of upward mobility. Such is the case in the small state in which I live, where political allegiance to the dominant party is a requirement, along with professional competence, for career advancement in both the public bureaucracy as well as in state enterprises. In the private sector personal networks outweigh political ones in the clientalist scheme, but here too there is an overlap between the personal and political.
What is different is that in clientalist systems patronage is based on the combination of relative merit and political or personal connections. In the sinecure and shoulder-tap system patronage has little or no relationship to relative merit–it is in fact a non-meritocratic form of favourtism based upon ascriptive rationales of social advancement and mutual entitlement.
As I said before, I could be all wrong about this and am merely extrapolating widely from my own personal observations and experience. Nor would any of this matter if NZ were not a liberal democracy supposedly committed to fair play, social justice and equal opportunity. But since it is, and because Kiwis tend to think of themselves as being better on these dimensions than most other democracies, then my questions about the role shoulder-tapping and sinecures play in NZ society are worth consideration.
I shall leave for another post the prevalence of professional blacklisting in NZ, but suffice to say that I have some experience with it.